Christmukkah Redux

I’m going to jump into the whole Christmas/Hanukkah discussion with both feet and with some potentially unpopular views. As someone raised in an entirely Christian household (Catholic mother, Baptist father), I’ve got a lot of history with and feelings about Christmas (mostly good). As Jordyn Rozensky wrote on this website, I associate the holiday above all with family get-togethers. It also makes me think of going home for the holidays, It’s a Wonderful Life, the smell of fresh pine, red and green decorations, frosted cookies, etc., etc. Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve was something to look forward to because the clergy burned incense, the choir was the biggest and best that night, and everyone was in a good mood.

When my Jewish husband and I got married, celebrating Christmas was never a problem. He himself grew up in an interfaith family (Episcopal mother, Jewish father—I know, I know, not considered “really” Jewish in some quarters, more on that in later blogs) that celebrated Christmas. Even my husband’s “very” German Jewish cousins, not interfaith, celebrated Christmas as their families had done ever since arriving in America in the 1800s. So for years we merrily put up a tree, hung stockings, festooned our apartment, then our house, with angels and elves and reindeer—the whole nine yards—without a care. We also joined a synagogue and raised our children as Jews, which included celebrating Hanukkah. We continue to light candles every night of Hanukkah, and the kids receive presents on the first and last nights.

The problems started when I decided to convert. Our kids were 13, 9, and 4 when I began attending classes. I loved conversion class, loved studying Torah, learning Jewish history and picking up some Hebrew. But then came the night when our coordinator brought up the topic of Christmas, delicately suggesting that we might not want to celebrate it any more and wondering how we would feel about that. One young woman looked distraught, then broke down crying and left. Really, she did. Giving up Christmas was too much for her to contemplate. To be honest, if I’d thought at that moment that I would have to give up Christmas once I converted, I probably would have started crying, too. The truth is, as soon as the coordinator asked us, I knew in a profound way that I couldn’t give it up. Besides, even if my husband and I decided to stop celebrating Christmas, our children would most likely tie us up in tinsel, stuff stockings in our mouths, and carry on without us.

So here we are as the holidays approach, now a completely Jewish family, yet neither entirely one thing or the other. We’re ok with it. But sometimes others aren’t. It’s their reactions that give me pause. Every season it happens: a newer Jewish friend or parent of my child’s friend or a neighbor who knows we are Jewish will give us that hard-edged look, or that telling “oooooh, you have a tree.” I flinch. I resist the urge to explain our background, that I just converted a few years ago, that really we are good Jews, that we go to family school and pray.

This is my current solution: I weasel. We put the tree in the back of the house so it’s not quite so apparent to passersby. We tend not to mention it at synagogue, which is interfaith anyway. We hang white lights, which could technically be regarded as a paean to the winter solstice!

Maybe it’s my inner rebel, maybe it’s my dear departed mother’s voice, maybe it’s just a surrender to overwhelming cultural influences, but I won’t stop celebrating the holiday with a tree and presents. And every Christmas morning, I’m perennially surprised and delighted to find there’s still a little magic left.

Reality, on a green 3×5 card

As I pulled into the parking lot at the temple, I was amused by the fact that my van, which is being held together by duct tape, string, paper clips and prayer, was parked next to a new Porsche.  The juxtaposition of the two vehicles seemed to represent how I felt about going into my son’s Bar Mitzvah meeting.  I was a little nervous and didn’t feel like I fit in.

I walked in, saw familiar faces, said some hellos, got my folder, sat down and whipped out my knitting.  I knit when I am nervous.  The meeting started right on time (odd, I know).  The Rabbi asked us to introduce ourselves and tell a story about our experience with Bar/Bat Mitzvahs.  I have no story.  The only story I have is the one I am telling you all right now.  Knit, knit, knit.  I messed up the introduction.  Knit, knit, knit. 

The Rabbi begins to go over everything.  He talks about how each ceremony is structured to fit the needs of each child and their family.  I am still knitting, but it is slowing.  I am starting to feel calmer, or maybe the magnitude of the whole event is just so overwhelming that I am in shock, hard to tell.  More talking. Eventually, there is a need for some paper shuffling and I put my knitting away.  I am starting to think this is doable.  Planning is something I am good at.

Just as the calm is beginning to settle in, the dates are handed out.  I am not sure what I expected, but what was printed on that green index card was a shocker for me.  I think I expected that the Bar Mitzvah date would be within a few weeks of my son’s birthday, not almost three months later.  I am sure that the fact that an actual date makes all of this real also contributed.   I was shell-shocked by the information on the card.

I could have requested a date.  I didn’t do that.  I just figured they would give us the right date.  It is two years from now, so really, I don’t have anything scheduled.  When I got the date, all the days that would have been bad flooded my mind.  The anniversary of my father’s death is in the same month as Mac’s bar mitzvah, but it never occurred to me to request it to not be on that date, it was so far away from Mac’s birthday.

While driving home I called a friend and freaked out a bit.  She listened to me go on, and then calmly reminded me that this is G-d’s party and that what will be will be.  The people that are important will be there.  That this is about more than just dates and the potential for blizzards to cause havoc with travel plans.  That in the end, it will be ok, Mac will do great, and everyone who needs to be there will be there.  The people that love him will come.

I asked her to remind me of this over the next two years when I am having some sort of cosmic meltdown.  I also am laying in a goodly supply of yarn, just in case.

A Wedding to Remember

When my husband and I told our kids last weekend that we were going to attend a wedding, they were mildly interested. “Whose?” asked our 12-year-old, barely looking up from the book she was reading. But when we answered with two men’s names, she perked up. “Really? That’s so cool!” Yep, we said, it IS really cool. It was super cool for us, because it was a Jewish wedding in a synagogue close to our home and filled with neighbors, friends and various members of the community.

More than two hundred people gathered to celebrate the marriage of two men who have been devoted to each other for 21 years. They walked down the aisle together, they stood beneath the chuppah together, and best of all, they each broke a glass together! The rabbi did a wonderful job of honoring their relationship and talking about their commitment to each other as a model that any couple–gay or straight–could aspire to.

I have to say it was one of the most joyful events I have ever attended. At one point almost every single person was on the floor dancing while an amazing band played away. There was a couple next to us who appeared to be in their 70s, and my friend and I just jumped gleefully up and down. “This is so fun!” I shouted over the thump of the music. But it was not only fun, it felt liberating, because we all recognized that we were participating in an important event. My favorite moment came when both men danced with their mothers while a friend crooned Gershwin’s “Someone to Watch Over Me.”

A sister of one of the grooms delivered the best line of the evening in her toast: “Here’s to the day when we won’t be celebrating a gay wedding, we’ll just be celebrating a wedding.”

A Hockey Stick, Scissors, and One Unhappy Duck

We were feeling good after a great Pie Fest, which drew our biggest crowd and most impressive selection ever—including a heavenly homemade key lime pie and a raspberry plum tart. Yum. All those round beauties sitting on our table, each embodying our wish for a New Year that rolls along smoothly. Our first-ever attempt at making pie crust turned out pretty well, even with the minor disaster of placing the lattice-top crust on our peach pie, which we somehow reconnected. (Thank you Cooks Illustrated for the eponymous illustrations!) The forecast had called for rain and wind, but right before our guests arrived the sun’s rays broke through and the kids spent most of the time outside. We went hours over our party time, and by the end we lounged on the floor and sofa, feeling much like we do after Thanksgiving.

While we were making the pies I asked my kids questions that our rabbi and director had suggested: What happened in the last year that you were proud of? What do you wish you had done differently? What are your hopes for the future year? They had some interesting answers, such as, “I’m proud of the way I handled grandma’s sickness and had faith that we would get back to the light as a family” and “I’m proud of how I resolved my fight with my best friend” to “I wish I had given the new kids in my class more of a chance.” Then they asked me, and let me tell you it’s not so easy when the roles are reversed. I think I begged off in the interest of time, with flour flying all around me. I’m still trying to figure out my answers, which Kol Nidre and Yom Kippur have really helped with. In my relatively brief time as a Jew, I’m still getting used to the idea of having the joyful celebration first and the melancholy repentance second, which is almost exactly opposite to the weeks of abstinence of Lent leading up to the good times of Easter. Color the eggs! Break out the chocolate!

On the afternoon of Yom Kippur, as my husband and I were beginning to feel a little woozy from no food, we went on a bike ride with our 7-year-old. That might sound weird, but we needed a distraction and the park isn’t too far from our house. When we got there we went straight for the pond, where we have spent countless hours feeding ducks and geese. The first ominous sign was a dead duck curled up near the fountain where my son loves to play. Then as we walked along the perimeter we heard an odd flapping sound and looked over to see a male mallard caught in fishing wire that was attached to the stone wall surrounding the pond. The wire bound his beak to his chest and wound around one of his wings, which he kept flapping in vain, turning around and around in a small circle. It was a truly heartbreaking sight. My first thought was to find a knife to cut him free and I ran over to some picnic tables, but the only person who looked likely was a dad barbecuing for his family who was using a gigantic cleaver to cut chicken and clearly not eager to hand it over to me. Meanwhile, my husband called the emergency parks number for a ranger to come out and rescue the bird. We figured it might take a while so we headed home, where my husband found a hockey stick and I grabbed some scissors. We drove back to the park and found two families gathered on the banks near the bird, talking about how to save him. My husband and older daughter hooked the stick under the bird’s belly and pulled him gently to the edge, and then quickly cut the line attaching him to the shore. The bird’s beak lifted up, his wings spread and he took off across the pond, just skimming the surface. The families clapped as the duck joined his buddies on the other side, and then watched as he swam by us again. Then we all noticed the same thing: a small piece of wire remained looped around the duck’s beak. We hadn’t completely freed him. The duck slowly circled the pond, rubbing his beak against stone and reeds. Just then a police car drove up—turns out the ranger wasn’t on call—and talked to us. He said he’d leave a message for the ranger on Monday, and there was nothing he could do. We were impressed the officer showed up at all, and held out some hope that the duck would be able to rub off the wire eventually before it starved. But at the same time we felt disappointed that our best efforts hadn’t been enough to completely liberate the duck. I’m tempted to draw some parallels to starting off the New Year full of hope, trying your best, then realizing along the way that sometimes things just don’t turn out exactly as you want them to. It’s a lesson I learn again and again in a spiral, that all we can do is try our best. We’re definitely going back to the park to try to find our friend, though.

Rosh Hashanah Pie Fest

One of the challenges of being an interfaith Jewish family is that at times we find ourselves without a large Jewish family gathering to attend. (Full disclosure: Even with my Irish Catholic upbringing I have long held a fantasy of large, warm, boisterous Jewish family gatherings. I’m not sure where it comes from—movies? books?—but there you go.) A few years ago we were trying to figure out how to celebrate Rosh Hashanah with just the five of us, when our middle child suggested making our favorite pies and inviting a few friends, in keeping with the whole sweet New Year theme. At first she wanted to  make it an anti-cake rally, too, complete with a poster of a cake in a red circle with a line through it (she isn’t too fond of cakes, obviously) but we decided in the end to keep it positive and focus on our love of pies. And thus our first annual Rosh Hashanah Pie Fest was born.

After going to morning services and Tashlich on the shores of Lake Michigan, we turned our kitchen into a veritable pie factory. Along with covering our kitchen in flour, smears of butter, and sugar we churned out a fair number of pies, among them apple, lemon meringue, pumpkin, key lime, cherry and blueberry. I have to admit we cheated on the chocolate French silk, buying it from Bakers Square. The hardest part turned out to be the crust, and I ended up buying pre-made crusts from the grocery store after a few failed attempts. I felt a little guilty about doing this, as my mother was an expert baker, who had learned the art of making pastry crust from her mother, whose own mother was a cook in the Duke of Norfolk’s kitchen (more on that in later blogs). We laid out the pies on tables in our backyard and had about ten people over, most of whom brought even more pies. It was lovely. The kids ran around, laughing and playing (and hyped up on sugar!), a wonderful sound. We ended up sitting around our outdoor fire pit, stuffed with all the different pies and feeling that we had done our part to start the New Year off as sweetly as possible. Every year Pie Fest has grown a little larger, and this year—our fourth—we’re expecting about thirty guests. I’m going to try my hand at the crust once again, this time using a recipe that our cantor suggested. We’ll see how it goes. L’Shana Tova!

Soccer and Sunday School

My kids just walked in the door.  The boys are laughing and retelling stories of their afternoon and laughing some more.  As they grab something to eat, they both agree that they love to go to Religious School.  Assembly was so much fun this week, they tell me.  The Rabbi is hysterical.

Jewish education is part of developing a strong Jewish identity.  I was always uncertain about how the kids would respond to what seemed to me to be “extra” school.  But the Educator does a great job making it fun for everyone.  This is great, because our belief is that unless you are sick, you are going to Religious School.  My husband and I do not generally let the kids miss for social events.

The problem is soccer, which is almost religion in our household.  Our kids play soccer every single day, even in the snow.  They kick the ball in the house, in spite of the fact that I tell them not to kick the ball in the house.  Last winter, our middle son started to play on the local travel team.  The travel team uses fields that are not available on Saturday mornings, so games are generally played on Saturday afternoons and Sunday mornings.

Can you guess what the conflict is?  Do we as good Jewish parents let our kids miss Religious School to play soccer?  Do we let the one kid who would die on the sword for soccer miss occasionally to do the one thing he truly loves? As the schedules were being determined for the soccer season, we request no practice on Wednesday.  We ask for no games on Sunday mornings.  But this isn’t always feasible.

We agree that it is important for the kids to develop a strong Jewish foundation and going to Religious School is part of creating a Jewish identity, it is also important to consider the whole child.  Right now my kids like to go to Religious School.  They understand the importance of going.  We recognize that “making” them go when they might want to do something else could cause resentment.

Granted it is a slippery slope: miss a day for soccer and another for a play date, what if soccer practices conflict with Wednesday Religious School, everyone is too tired from the week, when does it stop?  We walk a fine line maintaining the importance of obtaining a religious education/identity and living our lives in modern society.  We work hard to keep that balance for our kids.  This Sunday, while our youngest and oldest are in Religious School, our soccer player will be on the soccer pitch stopping goals.  (He promised to study his Hebrew extra hard this week and to get the assignments he will miss so that he will be prepared.)

On how to stop time

Fifteen years ago, when I smashed the glass at my wedding, signaling my signing up to raise my kids as Jews and create Jewish household, I dismissed a bar/bat mitzvah as a possibility.  It was something that would never, ever, ever happen.  I recognize that shows a complete lack of respect for the time/space continuum, but when thoughts of this celebration would enter my head it set off a panic attack.  Denial seemed like a good way to go.

Saturday, we went to our first bat mitzvah.  It was the very first coming of age celebration I had ever been to, in my entire life.   I went with my oldest son, Mac, who will be 13 in 2 years.  In November, we will get the date for his bar mitzvah.  The day that I said would never come is now bearing down on us with all the intensity of a hurricane.

Upon entering we were given a program that listed all the people participating.  When I saw the list, my heart began to beat a bit faster.  Oh no, I have to find friends and family who can read Hebrew to participate.  Where in the world am I going to come up with 7 people to do the aliyot?  These Special Seven have to be able to recite the aliyot in Hebrew, so that rules out… umm… most everyone we know.  Will I be able to find 7 adults that are able and willing to participate?

But, even more daunting than the service is the party that follows.  To listen to the other mothers talk about addressing 180 invitations, planning brunches and dinners for out of town guests, interviewing DJ’s, worrying about center-pieces, sends me running for my happy place.  Not even mentioning the expense associated with this type of event.  Words like mini-wedding make my stomach turn. 

The party we attended was lovely.  They did a very nice job.  It was tasteful, not over the top, the kids had fun and it was a really great party (I took copious notes).  What did my kid do?  Walk out.  It was too stimulating for him.  Not only do I have my own fears about planning and paying for this type of event, I am also beside myself about how he is going to handle it.  He has yet to have a birthday party that didn’t involve at least one tantrum.

As we were leaving, I asked him, do you want a party like that?  “NO! I want to go on a trip, just like Dad did,” was his response.  I let out a small sigh of relief, you might have heard it.  It seems I might be able to avoid the whole “big party” part with Mac, but there will still be out of town guests to entertain and other things to worry about.  Also, Mac is the last one in his class to have a bar mitzvah.  As he goes to more and more of these events, he may change his mind.  I guess we have two years to watch it unfold.

My baby is not a baby, or toddler, or preschooler, or elementary school kid anymore, he is almost a man in the eyes of Jewish law.  The time/space continuum did its thing and now I have to deal with the one thing that I feared the most when I made the decision to raise my children as Jews.  I have procrastinated and now I only have two years to figure out how to stop time.

Introducing Lisa

Greetings interfaith families!

As a Catholic who converted to Judaism three and a half years ago, I thought at first that my family and I had put the “interfaith” part of our religious life behind us. I was raised in an interfaith family—my mother was Catholic and my father at turns Baptist and Methodist—and let’s just say that religion was hotly debated in my childhood home.

My Jewish husband and I are raising our three children—ages 16, 11, and 7—as Jews. I’ve memorized the prayers and figured out how to make latkes. We’re active participants in our interfaith synagogue. I faithfully sat in on my older daughter’s Hebrew lessons and watched with tears in my eyes as she recited her portion at her bat mitzvah. In fact, her bat mitzvah was what finally spurred me to convert. Religious identity, complete at last.

But I’m learning that in reality we will always be interfaith. When my mother died a few months ago after a brief, heartbreaking struggle with cancer, I found myself thrust back decades. Memories of my mother and I attending Mass, going to confession, and saying the rosary together came flooding back. It turns out the language of my grief right now isn’t Jewish—the prayers that pour out of me are Hail Marys and Psalm 23. I tried to say Kaddish to myself in her final moments, but couldn’t remember the words. Our family and friends, Jews and Christians alike, came to my mother’s funeral in a beautiful, old Catholic church on a chilly spring day. My youngest asked what the kneeling pads were for, which came as a weird shock to me. I’m trying to take comfort now in the fact that, as my husband pointed out, my mother is remembered in (at least) three faiths.